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Cultural relativism


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    • 1. Cultural Relativism or Ethical or Moral Relativism
    • 2. Cultural relativism: History • View opposed to moral realism • Plato: Protagoras – ‘Man is the measure of all things’ • 19th Century: Nietzsche. • 20th Century: Anthropologists such as Franz Boas • 1950s on: Quine • Late 60s on: Post-Structuralists, post-Colonial theorists
    • 3. Descriptive v.s. Normative relativism • Descriptive: there are different moral codes in different cultures – It is a matter of fact that this is the case – Descriptive relativism = key conceptual tool of anthropology • Normative: there can only be different moral codes – It is a matter of principle that this is the case. – ‘It is a norm that there are only different norms…’
    • 4. Cultural relativism: Meaning • The belief that there is no moral truth that applies to all peoples at all times • there are no absolute moral standards for moral judgement. • ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’. • Consequence: between cultures (and the same cultures at different times), there could be wide moral variance. – e.g. Greece BC 220 slavery is OK; Greece AD 2011 slavery is not OK – Papua New Guinea: Cannibalism is okay in some tribes; Great Britain, less so; – Aztec human sacrifice vs European ‘civilisation’
    • 5. CR: tightening the definition • Not egoism or subjectivism (‘man’ = people or cultural group, not individual) • It is not each person, but each person's culture that is the standard by which actions are to be measured. – Societies have structure, including ethical standards. This is what makes them work. – There are common ethical practices within a society, which guide our actions. – Laws and rules provide stability and order in life. But they are relative to a given culture. – Laws and rules have historical origins, so are not absolute. • Consequence: no ethical system is better than any other. They are just different. – So: Why do as Romans, when in Rome?
    • 6. Protagorean Relativism (= Relationalism?) ‘Man is the measure of all things’ ‘I know of many things, — meats, drinks, medicines, and ten thousand other things, which are inexpedient for man, and some which are expedient ; and some which are neither expedient nor inexpedient...take, for example, manure, which is a good thing when laid about the roots of a tree, but utterly destructive if thrown upon the shoots and young branches ; or I may instance olive oil, which is mischievous to all plants, and generally most injurious to the hair of every animal with the exception of man, but beneficial to human hair and to the human body generally.’
    • 7. Quine • Ontological relativist • Remember conceptual schema, particularly linguistic ones? • What follows about Truth, given the (logical) indeterminacy of translation? Williard Van Orman Quine Often was heard to whine: "From a logical point of view, No translation will do." According to W. V. Quine Any ontology's fine And that's why I Think he's a heckgavagai. —Brian Leftow
    • 8. Quine “As an empiricist I continue to think of the conceptual scheme of science as a tool…Physical objects are conceptually imported into the situation as convenient intermediaries not by definition in terms of experience, but simply as irreducible posits comparable, epistemologically, to the gods of Homer …in point of epistemological footing, the physical objects and the gods differ only in degree and not in kind. Both sorts of entities enter our conceptions only as cultural posits.”
    • 9. Quine’s ‘Confirmation Holism’ • • • • The point that Quine is making is that the existence of both physical objects and the Homeric Gods is ‘underdetermined’ – the evidence, strictly speaking, doesn’t quite stack up that either of these objects exist. Their existence is supported holistically by elements of cultural practice, that’s all – beliefs cohere into belief-systems or cultural posits. Hence, one cannot test a scientific hypothesis in isolation, because an empirical test of the hypothesis requires auxiliary assumptions or auxiliary hypotheses. And these assumptions cannot all be explicitly tested.
    • 10. Perceptual Holism Which square is darker, A or B? No. They are the same colour. This is Edward Adelson’s 1995 ‘Checkerboard Illusion’. Adelson is Professor of Vision Science at MIT.
    • 11. CR: Advantages • promotes tolerance, not ‘ethnocentrism’. – recognises differences but does not judge them by some measure outside the culture in question. – reminds us that our way and what is familiar cannot be assumed to be the right and only way. – ‘Live and Let Live’ attitude. • avoids pointless complexity of normative moral debate • could make morals a matter of persuasion rather than absolutes… • explains why similar cultures have similar moral systems (common roots in culture)
    • 12. Evidence for CR: Judging others • There is very wide variance in moral systems and practices between societies in different places and at different times. • Examples: – – – – – boiling lobsters in France drinking animal blood in the Masai Mara abortion in the UK but not in Ireland capital punishment in the US but not in the UK Infanticide in Ancient Greece but not now • Yet: if our moral feelings do not originate from knowledge of an absolute moral measure, can we judge abhorrent practices?
    • 13.  CR: Some problems  • Surely we do rationally judge abhorrent  practices?  – Yet the appeal to rationality might only be an  intracultural standard. – Or, alternatively, rational debate might only be a  possibility between cultures that have the language  game ‘rational debate’… – However (Hume): do ethical norms really vary that  widely? • CR = ‘doing what you like’? – remember: culture isn’t the individual, though…
    • 14. CR: What is a ‘Culture’? • Does ‘Culture’ mean ‘National Boundary’ ,  ‘National Culture’? – Easy to define in monocultural nations: Bhutan,  North Korea, Lithuania – …harder to define in multicultural nations… • Do we have a ‘National Culture’ in Britain? – Could there be a ‘metaculture’, a culture of  cultures…implying tolerance? – …shared values even so? • Culture Culture clashes and ‘Culture Wars’ • Culture vs. subcultures…the example of Russian  criminals.
    • 15.  CR: Coherence issue  • Is C.R self contradictory, incoherent?  Consider:  – P1 ‘There is no absolute truth’ – P2 ‘Intolerance is wrong’ • Consequence: Tolerant intolerance! Absolute  relativism! – – – – Example: A culture has an intolerant world view! But CR:‘We must be tolerant’ Hence‘intolerance is wrong!’ Self-contradiction: affirms two mutually exclusive  things at the same time!  – [But: could reply that 
    • 16. CR: Liberalism and  its boundaries • How far does toleration  (presumed consequence of  CR) extend? • How should we act in  relation to another culture  that is certain of its moral  correctness, if its morality  enjoins intolerance and  conquest? • Can we legitimately be  intolerant of intolerance?
    • 17. CR: Can we speak of ‘Progress’? • If CR is true, what basis do we have for  calling for the end of racism, torture,  genocide, child labour?  • Such an appeal would be intolerant,  arrogant.  • If moral truth is culturally relative – we cannot appeal to universal human rights!  – Since there are no moral absolutes… – …so surely a relativist cannot argue on  moral grounds that slavery should be  abolished? – Also: we cannot call our present lack of  slavery ‘progress’
    • 18. CR: Is its flexibility a strength? • Yet we no longer have slavery  in the West – So change did occur  • because there was intracultural  moral argument against it. • Other drivers (e.g. Marxian  economic ones) might explain  moral change. • We know more, also… – So cultures aren’t ‘monolithic’  • there can be debate  • and this flexibility could be  presented as a strength... • Cultures/morals do change over  time, for reason we can  explain…
    • 19. CR: How does ‘progress’ occur? • Don’t we want to say that now is better than then? • Yet without absolutes, can there be moral progress? • However, moral relativism might not imply scientific relativism – So morals could be culturally relative. – But facts might not be. • So as our grasp of facts changed… – …our underlying moral reasoning might alter – e.g. facts about animal minds might change our view of our treatment of animals. – e.g. facts about non-Europeans might lessen our ability to be racist.
    • 20. Quiz • Who?: "Man is the measure of all things: of things which are, that they are, and of things which are not, that they are not.“ • Explain: normative relativism, abhorrence, subjectivism, ethnocentrism, cultural imperialism, tolerance, descriptive relativism.
    • 21. Exam Question 0 7 Cultures make different judgements about what is right and what is wrong and so there can be no moral truth. Discuss. (50 marks)